March 2012

Now more than ever, the perspectives of civil society in European rural development are dependent on the programmes of leading nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and the ability to implement them. The majority of NGOs have come to the conclusion that they have to act in alliance with similar organisations from other countries. Different international and transnational organisations are emerging as extensions of local, regional and national associations. The path toward a sustainable and integrated rural development is paved with a variety of bottom-up initiatives. These initiatives form an invisible network which grows stronger with each passing year. After decades of strengthening this unavoidable part of modern society, national states have acquired a potent social partner to consult with on the matter of strategic decisions concerning our common future. Since modern society faces an array of significant problems, nongovernmental networks are gaining ground in the political arena. The voice of civil society has become stronger also due to the appearance of Rural Parliaments.

The century of dramatic changes

The 19th century brought the decomposition of an obsolete agrarian society. Modernisation in the 20th century broke the obsolete industrial society, and in the 21st century, the information society is facing decomposition trends before it has even had the chance to be built up entirely.

The political map of the world has changed rapidly in the last decades. Compared to the previous century, this time the dramatic changes do not affect national borders. The main political changes appear beyond national states as well as beyond the concept of traditional political parties. Spurred by the process of globalisation, new actors have entered the political arena, not overly burdened with traditional political attributes such as state, party or class.

The daily rhythm used to be perceived through the dynamics of natural light, the alternation of day and night. The exchange of seasons determined the behaviour and eating habits of all civilisations up to the present one. Such a natural rhythm underlay virtually the entire history. Today it seems that civilisation can survive in a different way. Modern society seems to strive for stronger rhythms, determined by artificial light, video signals and electronic links in real time. Satellites and the internet enable one to perceive the whole world in a moment’s time. The world has shrunken to an area of common concern; it has become much smaller than before. The consciousness of modern society is manipulated through the flood of information and the artificial world created through mass media suddenly seems to be the human being’s primary environment. Every day, technology offers new products and services to the consumers, and the endless possibility of choice pushes all into the domain of virtual reality. To the badly informed citizen, it may seem that food and natural resources are part of this virtual reality. The assortment of food on offer in big cities, for example, where population density is high, does not allow for temporal or spatial distinction. At any given time, a wide variety of foods from all over the world is available to the consumer. Due to the process of industrialisation and the competition among the most fruitful areas of the planet, the food is relatively cheap. As the market keeps prices as low as possible, it influences the economic and social position of a particular part of society, the one producing the food. Only the industrial way of food production remains economically viable. Small farmers, subsistence and semi-subsistence farmers fight for survival. With each season, the number of those who persist dwindles. Being a farmer in the 21st century is all but a privilege.

The link between the urban and rural way of life changed dramatically. At the beginning of the modern era, the information society seemed like the urban privilege. Citizens of urban areas had access to information, to the satellite video signal and the internet, while people living in rural areas were denied most of those benefits of modern society. This gap between urban and rural areas is melting as the infrastructure intended to convey information progresses into rural areas. At the same time another gap between two poles of society is growing: the gap between the rich and the poor.

In nearly all countries, unemployment rates are growing, which pushes more and more people into the arms of poverty. Social margins are therefore crowded with people from all ages and professions, regardless of whether they live in big urban conglomerates, suburban areas or remote rural areas. The gap between the rich minority and the poor majority of the world grows wider every decade. The hidden cause for that change lies beyond eternal inter-national adversaries, beyond class struggle and beyond all traditional antagonism.

Modern science allows an accelerated exploitation of natural resources, regardless of the environmental damage. The exponential growth of new economic sectors, supported by science and the policies of most developed countries, influenced by multinational companies, has changed the image of the world radically. The development rate of urban areas exceeds the development rate of rural areas. Globalisation has fuelled the expansion of the rich minority, which possesses most of the wealth in the world. All streams leading toward a concentration of wealth have avoided rural areas from afar.

The unequal distribution of wealth has also added to the unequal distribution of risks. Both require social changes all over the world – in rich and in poor countries. Of course, situations in countries of the developed world differ from those in the poor south, but globalisation is indubitably designing a new political map of the world. This map now also boasts the new dimension of time, not of great importance earlier. The inconsiderate exploitation of limited resources and stepping into the uncertain future taking permanent risk brought forth the issue of solidarity between generations. Relationship between generations became more important for political decisions than class struggle.

Civil society had to react to the abovementioned trends. One of the answers to growing inequality was to raise the voice through new social movements and networks. From the diverse initiatives, rural parliaments emerged as one of the options of political confrontation with said inequality.

Positioning rural parliaments on the political map

It is important to emphasize that rural parliaments do not represent any political party. Rural parliaments are an expression of a social struggle with no obvious clear-cut protagonist. Small farmers, intellectuals, inhabitants of rural areas, workers and entrepreneurs, young people and adults, all of them are represented in rural parliaments. Particular roles and interests are interlinked and the views of specific social groups are often in conflict. In most cases, rural parliaments are events lasting a few days, gathering various stakeholders and respected politicians. Rural parliaments are similar to the organisations from which they sprang. They gather rural people regardless of their religious, political or class affiliation. The demands of rural parliaments include looking beyond the trade union interests of different regional, national and European farmers’ organisations. The common aspiration of all actors involved in rural parliaments is to protect the interests of rural areas. This leads towards a territorial rather than class-based positioning of the social movements involved, a general feature of globalisation. Rural networks, initiators of rural parliaments, represent an important part of the new social movements, moving from urban areas to rural ones.

Positioning rural parliaments on the political map is impossible without an overview of the trends regarding classical parliaments in modern parliamentarian democracies. A superficial comparison would proceed as follows: rural parliaments are an expression of contemporary social movements, increasingly gaining in importance, whereas the importance of classical parliaments, the cornerstones of parliamentarian democracy, the places of confrontation of political parties, diminishes with time. This bold thesis needs to be proved.

Parliaments were the central point of political decisions in parliamentarian democracies. However, the direction in which democracy is headed has reduced their political power. Let us analyse where this political power has moved instead.

Without any changes to the legislative regulation of parliamentarian democracies having been made, huge changes in the crucial decision-making process appeared in the last decades, whereby the majority of political decisions are adopted behind parliament, in the leading political parties and political coalitions. Parliaments usually simply pass these decisions, with no significant changes suggested from the opposite political parties. Rarely are decisions adopted by a political party which holds a majority in parliament rejected.

A significant share of political decision-making moved from parliament to government and even further to the state administration. The strengthening of the political power of state administration to the detriment of parliament is one of the biggest burdens of modern democracy. The permanent growth of administrative and sub-governmental institutions offers interesting and safe jobs, hardly dependent on the economic situation in the country. The administration shoulders an increasingly greater chunk of political decision-making at the expense of parliament. The demarcation line between political and expertise argumentation in the process of decision-making is blurry, so it is difficult to determine when responsibility extends to the democratically elected representatives, i.e. the parliament, and when this responsibility can be the privilege of the administration machinery. The complexity and the sheer size of the problems encountered by modern society favour the pragmatic decisions taken by the administration. Frequently, the political will of the parliament is neutralised by the complexity of rules and regulations holding sway on the lower administration level. Most attempts to simplify the complicated system of different policies result in new administration traps for the targeted stakeholders.

The public media have become the third pillar of the political decision-making. Providing an efficient control mechanism of political parties and governments, they can also launch certain political issues and themes into focus. Parliament often only then reacts and reflects on the political themes which were considered less important for the members of parliament and of great importance for the public. Public sensitivity for social, environmental and political dilemmas is often more adequate than that of the parliament and amplifying it, mass media are intensely involved in politics. In many cases the parliament is thus pushed to debate on an issue which would otherwise never have appeared on its agenda. Of course, political parties need to pay attention to their sensitive publicity, which is a positive aspect of the democratisation process.

The prime cause for the changes in modern society is economic growth and the liberalisation of the world market. The shift from national to transnational economies happened behind parliaments. In the time of national economies, parliaments played an important role designing the key elements of the economy: taxes, the level of social welfare, protecting the prices of resources, the national currency etc. The largest companies were mostly dependent on the national economic and social policy regulated by parliaments. The process of globalisation and the liberalisation of the world market led the strongest companies into a race for lowering the production costs. Avoiding taxes and expensive labour by transferring production to countries with considerably lower prices and overall production costs has become the rule in company management. The most “progressive” transnational companies dominate the world economy. No national policy could stop the process of exponential growth supported by the efficient application of modern science, which was sold out to rich multinational companies.

The process of market liberalisation had a destructive impact on the environment and on the social structure. The main ally of multinational companies in the process of concentrating the world’s wealth in the hands of a tiny minority is the consumer. There is no political force anymore which could take away the rights to spend, to travel, and to move freely from the individual. The individual consumer is pushing the economy to produce cheaper products, to exploit limited resources and to increase the general risk for society. No parliament can influence this unavoidable process. The paradox of modern politics is even so deep that the political parties, and through them the parliaments, in many aspects serve the interests of the capital concentrated in the hands of the richest individuals.

All these trends have diminished the role of the parliament as the central political body and dispersed political power into broader society. The process of democratisation has made modern states much more politicised, since the power of political decisions is spread among diverse social groups. In the new political culture, new sub-political centres are emerging. Nongovernmental organisations, associations, alliances and networks belong among important political stakeholders. Placing environmental issues and the interests of farmers into the political arena, the defenders of rural areas have also been taking part in the political process in the last decade. Different nongovernmental organisations and networks are raising their voices for rural areas. The interests of rural areas are also articulated in rural parliaments, which are a specific form of gathering with a clear political motive. Rural parliaments emerge as one of the inventive tools of modern democracy, with a good prospect to evolve into an important social force.

The role of civil society in European rural development

Without underestimating the main challenges in the field of rural development, let us first provide a brief overview of the situation from the systemic viewpoint.

Today, we can hardly imagine a democracy without the involvement of civil society. Long term trends show a decline of the traditional role of the nation state and at the same time the increasing importance of several international organisations, such as the World Bank, the United Nations, the WTO, the European Union, OECD etc. Simultaneously, nongovernmental organisations are growing as international networks, e.g. Greenpeace, Birdlife, WWF, and others on the environmental scene, IFOAM in organic agriculture, or PREPARE (the Partnership for rural Europe) and ELARD in the field of rural development. Their political positions are respected and are gaining in importance.

It is hard to make global estimates, but as far as the European Union is concerned, it should be admitted that the main representatives of civil society are involved in the formal policy process. In the field of rural development, the European Network for Rural Development (EN RD) was established to help coordinate rural areas and to improve connections between actors in the rural development on the European level. It is a fact, however, that the rural areas and the stakeholders acting there are not well connected, one of the reasons being the diversity of rural communities and a wide range of needs from different social groups.

Within the frame of the EN RD Coordination Committee, there are 12 seats reserved for the most influential European NGOs or networks in the field of rural development and agriculture. The PREPARE Network is one of those. Next to the 12 representatives of civil society, there are 27 seats reserved for the representatives of the Ministries of Agriculture (one per each member state) and 31 seats for the National Rural Networks. Of course, at the EN RD Coordination Committee meetings there are representatives from the European Commission and from the EN RD Contact Point, which acts as the secretariat of EN RD. Other bodies of EN RD include the LEADER Sub-committee, Thematic Working Groups and the European Evaluation Network.

It is true that these bodies do not have a direct impact on European policies. This remains in the domain of the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council. The consultation of EU bodies with the most influential representatives from civil society is just a good starting point for now. It gives hope that the inferior position of the civil society in relation to European authorities will improve with time.

At a formal level, this is a good example of a fruitful exchange of political views, positions and needs between the EU, its separate member states and civil society. Besides the formal level of interaction, there is the spontaneous level, an important ingredient in the workings of civil society. A good example of how civil society can organize and mobilize its human resources is the debate about the Common Agriculture Policy after 2013. The most visible initiative in the field of designing the future agriculture and rural development policy is the initiative called the Agricultural and Rural Convention – ARC. More than 130 NGOs and networks expressed support of the communication ARC has launched after the long process of negotiation between various NGOs active on the European, national, regional and sub-regional levels. The European Commission heeded the main demands of the broadest coalition in the field of rural development so far. The ARC was also invited to attend the hearings in the European Parliament and in the European Economic and Social Committee.

At present, numerous social and economic problems persist, but only few can provoke civil society to step into civil disobedience. To ignore the political system or even destroy it is the last option civil society has at its disposal – it resorts to it only when all other methods to influence political decisions have failed. The tolerance of the civil society in the European Union is relatively high. However, the permanent growth of social and economic disparities, the economic decline of rural areas, the existential distress, the moral crisis and social injustice could provoke civil society to step over the limits of tolerance, conquer the streets and demand justice in a radical way. None of the European-wide networks active in the field of rural development have displayed tendencies towards civil disobedience until now, although most of them have the potential to encourage their members to articulate their interests in a more assertive manner. As long as the dialogue between social partners promises results, there is no need for civil disobedience.

Rural parliaments as a tool for a shift toward participative democracy

Rural parliaments are regular annual or biannual gatherings in five European countries: Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Estonia and Slovakia. Four of them are organised by Prepare member organisations. In addition, other Prepare member organisations have expressed an interest to apply the methods or events called “rural parliaments” in their countries.

The discussion about rural parliaments as some of the most significant tools for integral rural development is a great challenge for the Prepare network. Countries with rich experience in this field are striving to improve the quality of these events. Countries without such an experience are willing to learn from the best practices and exchange relevant experience. They would profit tremendously from a discussion on rural parliaments and prepare themselves to start with similar action on their own turf. The transfer of the rural parliament as a methodology to new countries broadens the possibility of the effectiveness of the Prepare network as it reinforces the positions of its member organisations.

Rural parliaments are an innovative way to gain broader consensus about rural development policies on the national level and to strengthen the civil voice in favour of sustainable rural development. In recent years, rural parliaments have proved an excellent opportunity to make the efforts of the Prepare member organisations visible in the national context. Rich experience was gathered all around Europe. Each country organising such an event faced situations similar to and different from those encountered by another country. So far, there has been no explicit exchange of experience among them. In 2010, the Prepare network launched an initiative for the international exchange of experience on rural parliaments. First an international workshop was organised, where several topics pertaining to the organisation of rural parliaments were discussed. The main objective of the workshop was to exchange information about different events bearing the same name in five countries. Clarifications as to the definition of a rural parliament were needed, as well as its supposed structure, the roles of partners and the logistics of different rural parliaments. The workshop was carried out as part of the Swedish rural parliament in May 2010. At the second stage, deeper insights into rural parliaments were provided at the seminar on rural parliaments organised by the Prepare network in Slovakia in the same year. Several topics were discussed: the organisational side of rural parliaments (partnership, choosing the proper area/accommodation, reservations, timing, guests etc.), the financial aspect of rural parliaments (sources, fundraising, expenses, participation); the visibility of rural parliaments (public relations, media plan, costs); and the preparation of a book on rural parliaments. One of the outcomes of the conference was the need for international exchange of rural parliament methodologies. This and other needs concerning the development of the tools expressing the will of the people living in rural areas are a good basis for further actions regarding this innovative approach to rural development.

Rural parliaments definitely belong among the constructive methods for putting important themes on the political agenda. The comparison of themes discussed at various rural parliaments yields similarity across all countries. It also shows that the Prepare network and the ARC are mapping the issues from bottom up, issues which are in effect relevant on all levels, from the local and the sub-regional to the national and European. Up until now, rural parliaments have been organised within the framework of national borders, while their organizers have already been active on the international level for a long time. It is reasonable to expect that rural parliaments will expand into some other Prepare member countries and evolve from national to European events.

There are significant differences among rural parliaments in terms of duration, size and especially in the organisational approach taken by each, while the contents are more or less similar. Rural parliaments are putting relevant issues on their agenda. Discussions in rural parliaments often also offer answers and solutions. In general, rural parliaments express the needs from local areas, trying to satisfy them according to the “from the bottom up” principle. Until now, the most visible European programme which systematically supported local bottom-up initiatives has been the LEADER programme. Its Local Action Groups (LAGs) build partnerships to design local development strategies and implement them. Despite its evident benefits and measurable results, the LEADER programme is in danger of being cut down or even cancelled. There are stakeholders in the political arena who claim that the LEADER programme eats away at the resources intended for agricultural purposes. On the other hand, there are nongovernmental organisations and experts active in rural areas forming a broad coalition to support the idea of LEADER, while defending the need to expand the LEADER programme and apply the LEADER method also in other European funds seems to be accepted at the level of the European Commission. Still, uncertainty whether the LEADER programme will be one of the measures present in the future Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) remains. By the end of 2010, there were more than 2.200 Local Action Groups registered in the European Union. All rural parliaments emphasised the importance of the LEADER programme. Continuity of the successful measures in CAP is one of the preconditions for the vitality of rural areas and one of the focal points of discussion at rural parliaments.

There are further arguments in favour of a continued systematic support of rural development and the internationalisation of rural parliaments. First, there is the need to strengthen the international capacities of civil society, which has to be able to take part in a fair political dialogue with the European authorities and other multinational organisations influencing life in rural areas. Second, there is the need to raise the voice from rural areas at all levels, from the local and sub-regional to the national and European level. Strong and transparent nongovernmental structures with clearly articulated programmes should be in the best interest of all parts of society since they offer the model of a working participative democracy. According to the interest several countries have voiced to introduce rural parliaments, we can expect an ongoing growth of the civil initiative and better prospects for many Europeans living in the rural area.

There is no modern democracy without a strong civil society, organised and involved in the decision-making processes. The importance of civil society in the political structure of a modern state is increasing. As policy-making shifts from the national to the transnational floor, civil society is following and sometimes even leading, efficiently organised. Articulating the interests of groups on the margins of society has become one of the most urgent needs of an unbalanced society. Rural parliaments and rural networks carry a huge responsibility to articulate the interests of rural areas.

In the century of dramatic changes, relationships between different social groups are blurred in complexity. Despite the flood of information, or perhaps because of it, several remote areas can easily be disregarded and excluded from society in the globalised world. Rural parliaments enable voices from rural areas to be heard and respected. Rural Parliaments are the real pioneers of participative democracy.

Looking for appropriate governance structures at all levels, rural parliaments can make a significant contribution to the open and balanced society, which should be one of the main goals of the future Europe.